Judge Dredd: The Small House (Comic Review)

3 Mar

Judge Dredd: The Small House

We are fascists.  We rule.

-Judge Smiley, to Judge Dredd.

Why do I like Judge Dredd?

It’s a hard question to answer.  I can recognise the appeal of the zero-tolerance attitude to policing Dredd and his fellows bring to Mega-City One, but I can also recognise the dangers of slipping from what one character called ‘good solid judging’ to outright oppression.  The better Dredd stories acknowledge the weaknesses of the Justice Department itself and the scope for corruption and tyranny, both direct and indirect.  Part of the appeal of Dredd himself, as a character, is the curious balance between Dredd’s commitment to the Justice Department and to justice itself.  Dredd is both a noble servant of his city, putting his life at risk time and time again to save the citizens, and the defender of a fascist regime.

In a sense, therefore, Judge Dredd is Mega-City One’s greatest hero and its greatest villain.

Dredd himself appears to believe that there is simply no alternative.  Mega-City One exists on a permanent edge, endlessly on the cusp of collapsing into chaos.  The city is barely capable of keeping itself going even when there isn’t a massive outside threat; the judges are badly overstretched, the vast majority of the population is unemployed and permanently bored, there’s little hope of building a better life for most of the citizens … and the rest of the world is worse.  This, perhaps, is the key to Dredd’s character.  He loves his city and sees himself as doing an unpleasant, but necessary job.  He also sees himself, perhaps, as someone with the freedom to temper the justice system – sometimes – with compassion and mercy.  This may be the root cause of his constant (until recently) opposition to robot judges.  A robot lacks the ability to determine when the situation calls for mercy, rather than ‘justice.’ 

The Small House pits Dredd against the enigmatic Judge Smiley, the head of a top-secret black ops unit that has been quietly manipulating events in Mega-City One since the death of the insane Chief Judge Cal.  Smiley has effectively separated himself from the Chief Judges and now acts alone, happily doing whatever he feels he needs to do to keep the city safe.  His methods bring him into conflict with Dredd, who thinks Smiley has broken the law repeatedly (even though they started out as allies).  Smiley presents Dredd with a difficult problem.  If Dredd moves against Smiley, what’ll come crashing down with him?

Smiley himself is an odd contrast to Dredd.  Where Dredd is a man of action, Smiley is a tea-sipping backbencher.  Dredd clings to his faith in the greater cause, Smiley is unapologetic about the simple fact the judges are fascists – I think he’s the first of the judges to openly acknowledge that they really are fascists – and that they do whatever they have to do to maintain their power.  The law is, as far as they are concerned, little more than a guideline.  This is not the first time this has been discussed – Dredd himself was involved with crushing the pro-democracy movement, on the orders of Chief Judge Silver – but it is considerable more blatant here as Smiley is no longer being overseen by anyone.  No one, not even Smiley himself, is carrying out sanity checks.

The story develops quickly as Dredd and his allies try to unearth Smiley’s covert teams and take them into custody, eventually discovering a long-buried truth.  Smiley and his team discovered the Apocalypse War was about to take place … and did nothing, because they believed Mega-City One needed to be pruned a little.  (Meta-commentary – this was one of the reasons the epic was written in the first place.)  Dredd is horrified by this assertion and understandably so – they came very close to losing the war – and clashes with the Chief Judge as he tries to bring Smiley to justice.  In the end, Smiley is brought down by the shock of being exposed and dressed into the light.  By this point, in the middle of a breakdown, it must have been a relief to die.

It’s hard to assess the story as it fits into canon, because parts of it feel like a ret-con.  There was no need to have the war, which caught the judges by surprise, be ‘allowed’ to happen.  It strains credibility that Smiley would have lost his sense of balance so quickly, let alone that he would have survived a series of city-shattering events without ever coming into the light or simply being killed in passing.  Smiley’s infrastructure would have been smashed and rebuilt repeatedly, without anyone ever noticing.  On the other hand, an isolated group might well lose track of reality.  It happens to internet forums as well as intelligence teams.

But it does focus on the difference between Dredd, who is empowered by his belief in the system, and a cynical judge who sees the system as an end in itself.  It also allows some moments for Dredd to fear that Smiley really does have authorisation from the Chief Judge, forcing him to confront a possibly (even more) corrupt system.

The story could have done with a great deal more development, if you ask me.  Smiley was never built up as a formidable threat and kept in the shadows, at least until it was too late.  It works in his favour – Smiley was never interested in mounting a coup – and yet there is a sense that when the covers are pulled away, Smiley simply shrivels. 

It is a good glance into a darker part of Dredd’s world, but – at a deeper level – it is also a grim warning of what happens when people with power are allowed to lose track of reality and operate without oversight.  And the artwork is extremely good.  The only major downside is that the story ends abruptly, not with a real examination of the consequences.

3 Responses to “Judge Dredd: The Small House (Comic Review)”

  1. Mike Thomas March 4, 2021 at 10:27 am #

    I started reading Judge dread from 2000AD issue 2 (he was not in Issue 1). He is still my favourite character from the comic. Personally I think you could write a philosophy thesis on democracy versus fascism just based on the Judge Dredd stories. As you so rightly point out, the Judges are all fascists, but Dredd walks a razor thin line that shows, in itself, fascism isn’t inherently bad, it is just the failings of the people in charge that make it bad.

    It reminds me of the classic philosophy question – would you rather live in a perfect democracy or a fascist state run by Santa Claus?

    • chrishanger March 5, 2021 at 11:01 am #

      I think the inherent problem with fascism is effectively the same as communism – to whit, the system is either forged by tyrants or will inevitably produce tyrants. In Dredd, we have Chief Judges Cal, Silver, McGruder and Sinfeld (although all Chief Judges are effectively fascists, some are just more fascistic than others).

      Chris

      • Mike Thomas March 5, 2021 at 12:06 pm #

        All power corrupts – absolute power corrupts absolutely. Most religions are built on the fascist model – the supreme ruler that has your best interests at heart and all you need to do to be happy is obey without question. Maybe lots of people actually want that kind of “freedom” from taking responsibility, and therefore want to believe that there are people who will do that. Many Trumpists were perfectly happy to cling to their belief in him inspite of all the evidence that he was only doing the job to profit himself.

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